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Jay Castro’s NFL Preview–NFC South

For this week’s predictions, I am neither drinking nor eating any specialized wings. Perhaps fittingly so—it’s a divisional race that could be the least exciting in the league this year. DISCLAIMER: Do not exhaust your bank account, mortgage your home, or sell your children over my prophecies; if they were that accurate, I’d keep them to myself while the money rolls in. Besides, the Fantasy Football Gods enjoy tormenting you…so please, merely enjoy my rants, and consider them somewhat entertaining, kind of as you might Bubbles and Bunny from the Nudie Bar…

nfc south teams nfl 2012

NFC South

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
2. New Orleans Saints: 8-8
3. Carolina Panthers: 6-10
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2-14

Atlanta Falcons: Skill Positions: QB: Matt Ryan, WR: Roddy White, Julio Jones RB: Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers TE: Tony Gonzalez, Notable DEF/ST: John Abraham, Asante Samuel, Sean Weatherspoon

In 1961, Del Shannon wa-wa-wa-wa-wondered what happened to his young girlfriend, and why-why-why-why-why she left him. But after briefly concerning himself with her housing arrangements, he faced the reality of her departure. Much like Mr. Shannon, the rest of the NFC South is going to have to face reality—the 2012 Falcons are going to be run-run-run-run-runaways.

The offensive line play will make the difference between a ticket to January’s dance and a long, bitter offseason. The Falcons are loaded with firepower at nearly every skill position, but with one of the worst O-lines in the league in 2011, they were just shooting blanks. Unable to properly display their aerial weapons, they used a ground-first approach that everyone’s mother saw coming. As a result, Matt Ryan completed just 15 passes of 20 yards or more all season. What a waste of an elite talent! This should change however, thanks to the hiring of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator and the addition of rookie linemen Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the draft. Koetter, formerly Jacksonville’s OC, will have many more toys to play with now that he did with the Jags. And while Konz is expected to switch from his natural center position to play right guard, high hopes are expected of him, as well as the massive Holmes.

Another major factor here is whether or not Michael Turner (at the wrong side of 30) will still be able to stand up, let alone give the Dirty Birds another 1000 yard rushing season. Improved offensive line play should give him better holes to run through, but if he can’t run through them, the offense could still derail. Tiny Jacquizz Rodgers, their 5th round pick from last year, is his backup; if Turner falters, running back could be a sore point all year and a draft day necessity before the next.

On defense, the Falcons were also pretty ho-hum. While they were ranked 12th overall as a collective unit last year, they were closer to the bottom in many statistical categories, including sacks, forced fumbles, and highlight-reel appearances. Making matters worse is that their best tackler, Curtis Lofton, bolted to their biggest rival in free agency to help plug up holes in the Saints defense caused by too many bounty payments. On the plus side, they did manage to add veteran shutdown CB Asante Samuel to an already decent secondary. With Drew Brees still in the division and both Cam Newton and Josh Freeman on the rise, this could turn out to be their best acquisition.

All in all, it doesn’t take flash and glamour to make an NFL winner. It takes talent however, and the Falcons have that in spades. A pedestrian early schedule (they will see all four AFC West teams within the first six weeks of the year) should have them flying out of the gate, and I don’t see them faltering enough to be seriously challenged when things get tougher later.

New Orleans Saints: Skill Positions: QB: Drew Brees, WR: Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, RB: Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, TE: Jimmy Graham, Notable DEF/ST: Roman Harper, Curtis Lofton, Will Smith (SUSPENDED), Jonathan Vilma (SUSPENDED FOR SEASON)

Who Dat? It’s the question on everyone’s mind…who’s going to coach the New Orleans Saints this year? It’s not going to be Sean Payton, for obvious reasons. It’s going to be assistant Joe Vitt…after week 6. Before that, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will get to show his stuff to the world.

Sure, Kromer and Vitt have a ton of stuff going for them–Drew Brees, for instance. Big Easy residents can rest somewhat easy now that Brees will remain a Saint for the foreseeable future. He has a large target in top-rated TE Jimmy Graham that can scare many opposing defenders, and all-purpose-yardage king Darren Sproles, who made fans forget Reggie Bush by piling up the kinds of numbers Saints fans envisioned when Bush was drafted in 2006. However, the departure of Robert Meacham dings their vaunted receiving corps a bit, and replacement Devery Henderson has a bad reputation for ill-timed drops. And then there’s…

Let’s just say that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has his work cut out for him, shall we? Even if losing defensive leaders Vilma and Smith for extended periods (not to mention veteran CB Tracy Porter in free agency) doesn’t hurt them physically, the impact of the bounty scandal has got to affect this group emotionally, to say the least. And since the Saints didn’t have a pick until round 3 of this past draft, they could not fill their defensive needs with a top prospect—Akiem Hicks and Corey White will need to fit the bill. The addition of Lofton is a decent stopgap, but last year’s 24th ranked defensive unit has likely lost too much blood to quickly recover.

While the Saints are still embarrassingly talented on the offensive side of the ball, more will be required from them to stay competitive in the stacked NFC conference. The offseason issues shouldn’t lead them into a Colts-like downfall, but the impact of losing their head signal caller and several defensive standouts will be felt. They get a decent head start in the schedule before meeting Green Bay in week 4; from then on, we’ll have somewhat of an idea where this team is headed. They are too good to be below .500 but too troubled to be as dangerous as usual, so this will probably be a lost season on the bayou.

Carolina Panthers: Skill Positions: QB: Cam Newton, WR: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Louis Murphy, RB: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert TE: Greg Olson, Notable DEF/ST: Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, James Anderson

What a season Cam Newton had in 2011! He shattered numerous records for NFL rookies, including 4,051 passing yards, 706 rushing yards, and 35 total TDs; not to mention game feats such as passing for over 400 yards in his first two NFL starts, throwing the longest scoring pass (91 yards) in Carolina Panther history, and passing/rushing for a TD each in half of his starts. Not surprisingly, he was voted the NFL’s Rookie of the Year by a large margin. Such brilliance is in need of reward, so to help out their super-rookie, the Carolina Panthers went out and got…dick.

Okay, not entirely—they did make some moves on the offensive line. But with stars like Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil already there, and Newton himself having demonstrated that he probably doesn’t even need much of an O-line to be effective, the questions turn to the other skill positions. They are insanely stacked at running back—the addition of Tolbert gives them four huge scoring threats on the ground—and Olson is a nice pass-catching TE, but having a strong receiver or two to complement Smith would behoove them. Perhaps developing Brandon LaFell, David Gettis or Joe Adams into that role could help, but not for some time.

Defensively, this is a young unit. How so? Ron Edwards, at 33 years old, is the only player listed on their entire defensive depth chart as being over 30 years of age. They ranked 28th overall last year, but they also had key players such as Beason, Edwards, and Thomas Davis out for extended periods. All are apparently healthy, and the addition of outside linebacker Luke Kuechly, picked 9th overall in the draft, gives them a potential defensive leader to complement what they have on the other side of the ball. It must be noted that the youth movement also dots their special teams units—punter Brad Nortman and returner Adams are rookies, while standouts Captain Munnerlyn, Kealoha Pilares, and Jordan Pugh haven’t even seen 25 years old yet.

All in all, this team is probably not ready for prime time (although they’ll have to be; they get the Giants on a Thursday night in week 3 and head to Philly for a week 12 Monday nighter). Last year, Cam Newton took the league by surprise, but this time, every defensive coordinator worth his salt will be gunning for the kid. And while strengthening the O-line a bit might be wise, adding another vertical threat to complement Smith should have been a priority. I expect a correction on Newton’s inhuman statistics this year, but investing a high draft pick on a WR and giving the defense another year to gel could make the Panthers unstoppable beyond 2012.

POSTSCRIPT: The Panthers have acquired WR Louis Murphy from the Raiders. This might just give them that second receiving threat after all. Or maybe not.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Skill Positions: QB: Josh Freeman, WR: Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, RB: Doug Martin, LeGarrette Blount, TE: Dallas Clark, Notable DEF/ST: Gerald McCoy, Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib

And now, it’s time to move from one of the league’s most exciting teams to one of its least interesting. When a team loses ten games in a row to end the season, a thorough housecleaning should be expected—and that’s what has happened here; Raheem Morris, thanks for playing and enjoy the lovely parting gifts. Out goes that regime, while in comes Rutgers disciplinarian Greg Schiano to head the thing, former Giant QB coach Mike Sullivan to head the offense and former Giant DC Bill Sheridan to take on the same role approximately 1,150 miles south. A trio of Jersey-ites moving to Florida…who would have ever thought?

Although Tampa Bay has one of the league’s more capable young quarterbacks in Josh Freeman, they have been unable to showcase him much—the Bucs went from 9th place in points allowed in 2010 to dead last, forcing the normally poised Freeman (6 picks in 2010) into terrible decisions (22 picks in 2011). Furthermore, their receiving corps wasn’t scaring anyone once you got past Mike (I wasn’t drafted by Matt Millen) Williams, and even that was a stretch. I expect this to eventually change with the addition of Vincent Jackson…or actually in spite of him; pencil Jackson for my bust of the year. This is a young team that will likely get hurt by the addition of a diva receiver. If the coaching staff can keep Jackson on board, he’s a big target that can really help Freeman along; if he lets the losing get to him, the contract he’s signed won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on, and the passing game will probably hinge on Dallas Clark’s health. The rushing attack should be consistent…if LeGarrette Blount can put aside his ego and play nice with Doug Martin, I expect both to have good years.

And speaking of which…yeah, there will be losing. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that Tampa was not only ranked dead last in points allowed, but in yards per play, yards per pass attempt, rushing yards, and rushing TDs. Ouch. Sure, Bill Sheridan was a Giant defensive coordinator…in 2009, when they started 5-0 before having a complete defensive meltdown. That Giant team gave up 40 points in five of their last eleven games, and he was sacked immediately after the season…so Sheridan might not be the guy you want to have putting out your grease fire. Furthermore, this team is going need the blitz to be effective (just look again at the three offenses above), and Sheridan wasn’t known to do so with Big Blue. The Bucs have the horses to rush the passer, especially on the defensive line, so it’s on the coaches to implement it.

But their fans are the worst part of all. Florida just doesn’t seem to care about their sports teams, and Tampa is no different; the Bucs blacked out five of their eight “home” games (one was played in London). Seeing all those empty seats has to be disheartening for those kids. So, with many crappy factors involved (young team, new regime, little support, Dan Orlovsky signing), and a brutal schedule with six games against three killer offenses, I give you the team most likely to win 2013’s first overall pick.

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About Jason E. Castro
Jason E. Castro isn’t here to govern your Caribbean island, sell your convertible furniture or sing you a top 40 hit. He is a writer from New York City and you can find more of his work online at literary websites such as Danse Macabre or Mediavirus Magazine. And while you're at it, feel free to check out his full length novel, "Rowdies", or his on-line novella, "Cricket for Souls"; both are available from Amazon.

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